By Milan Simonich
John Bemis, litigator, helicopter pilot, Army veteran and government executive, never wanted to succeed New Mexico’s living legend.
As it turned out, the path he did not care to travel has taken him on the ride of a lifetime.
“I was looking for my last great job and I found it,” said Bemis, secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
A combination of timing, Bemis’ compelling biography and a healthy dose of luck put him in the office.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, in one of her first moves early in 2011, chose former astronaut and former U.S. senator Harrison Schmitt to run the energy department. But Schmitt, who was 75 years old and famous for having walked on the moon in 1972, was wary of private investigators who handle background checks for the state Senate.
Schmitt declined to go through the Senate confirmation process. That left Martinez with no choice but to find a new cabinet secretary, her shooting star having flamed out.
She turned to Bemis, who had been attorney for oil companies and later an assistant commissioner of the State Land Office under another Republican, Patrick Lyons.
Bemis, 61, said he never aspired to any cabinet position. But in this case, good fortune grabbed him and lifted him to his version of Eden.
Since taking office 13 months ago, Bemis has visited 20 of the 35 state parks that his department oversees. He said he is equally captivated by the state’s forests, also managed by his advertisement agency.
At times, Bemis said, Martinez gently reminds him that energy, especially the oil and gas industry that is so critical to the state’s economy, should his primary concern.
And it is. Right now, Bemis said, New Mexico is a tale of two states when it comes to oil and gas enterprises.
Southeastern New Mexico is riding a crest of prosperity with oil drilling. But northwestern New Mexico is ailing, its natural gas industry in deep decline because of a supply glut made worse by a winter that was exceptionally mild.
“This is a fantastic time for oil and an absolutely terrible one for natural gas,” Bemis said.
By his estimation, about 1,200 new wells are in New Mexico, and perhaps 1,000 are producing oil.
“All the drilling is in the southeastern part of the state. All the rigs are there,” Bemis said.
But, he said, the San Juan Basin could see a reversal of fortune, perhaps sooner than most would expect.
Bemis said drilling in places that once did not seem possible now is practical. The Fruitland Formation in the Four Corners region may offer one such opportunity, though not for natural gas.
“One bright spot is companies are starting to look for oil in the Farmington area,” Bemis said.
South Bend to West Point
In his boyhood, for reasons he still does not quite understand, Bemis became fascinated with the U.S. Military Academy. The idea of being a cadet and then an Army officer consumed him.
Bemis’ family had no tradition of men heading off to West Point. He grew up in South Bend, Ind., near the University of Notre Dame. But when Bemis dreamed of going to college, it was West Point in New York state that dominated his thoughts.
While in high school, he received an appointment to academy, just as he had hoped. But as soon as Bemis arrived on the West Point campus in 1969, he said he knew the strict, structured, storied institution of Eisenhower and MacArthur was not the place he imagined. Bemis knew he did not want to make a career of the military.
Still, he stuck it out and made good grades. He graduated from West Point in 1973, just as the war in Vietnam was winding down.
A helicopter pilot, Bemis remained in the Army for eight years, three beyond his commitment to repay West Point for the pricey education he had received.
At age 30, in 1981, Bemis became a civilian in search of a new career. This time he chose Notre Dame, enrolling in law school there.
He never saw himself working in criminal law. Corporate litigation interested him.
Bemis said he thought he might like to work in Chicago, his roots being in the Midwest. But then Gulf Oil offered him a job in Houston.
This marked the beginning of his professional life in the oil and gas industry. Gulf soon merged with Standard Oil of California, and then they took the name Chevron.
The names of the companies he worked for would continue to change as sales and acquisitions occurred, but Bemis’ role was constant. He advised his clients, supervised litigation and argued his causes.
In 1994 his bosses in Houston wanted a senior attorney to be based in Farmington. So it was that Bemis moved to New Mexico, working by then for Burlington Resources Inc.
State Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, is a petroleum landman. He said Bemis made an immediate and lasting impression on him when they were colleagues.
“He is one of the smartest men I know,” Strickler said. “He also combines common sense with practical experience. He knows how to settle. He knows how to compromise, and he understands how to forge agreements.”
No to Houston
Corporate executives eventually wanted Bemis to Houston. His wife, Patricia, a native of New Mexico, could not be sold on the idea.
She wanted to stay in New Mexico. Bemis did too.
Looking for a new career, Bemis found work in the State Land Office in Santa Fe. Lyons hired Bemis to oversee energy development.
If oil is king in Texas, it is at least a prince in New Mexico. Not everybody appreciated Bemis’ stands with the Land Office.
State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said residents of his district feared that oil drilling could occur in the picturesque Galisteo Basin. Santa Fe’s elected officials mobilized to try to keep the Galisteo under their control, rather than ceding to the state government power over drilling and development decisions.
Wirth said he was worried that Bemis, after 18 years of corporate experience, might want to assert that the state had the power to control any and all land not owned by the federal government.
During Bemis’ Senate confirmation hearing this year, Wirth asked him, not at all joking, if he would condone drilling on the historic Santa Fe Plaza.
Wirth, in the Senate Rules Committee, voted against Bemis’ confirmation as energy secretary. But later that day Bemis received confirmation in the Senate on a 40-0 vote.
“He’s definitely qualified for the position,” Wirth said. “My concern was whether he would philosophically want to preempt counties on development questions.”
Mariel Nanasi, executive director of Santa Fe-based New Energy Economy, said she considers Bemis too aligned with extraction industries to make the state better and less dependent on old forms of energy.
“If we’re going to move this economy forward, it’s going to be in alternative energy, she said.
Bemis, though thick of skin after years at West Point and in courtroom confrontations, said he considered such criticism unfair.
He pointed out that he stayed at the Legislature late into the night last session to advocate for state Rep. Rudy Martinez’s bill to streamline the permitting process for geothermal energy development.
Rep. Martinez, D-Bayard, said he received help from the governor’s team, including Bemis. The result could be that an area in Hidalgo County where a rose-growing business once existed will become the site of a geothermal project.
Bemis said his administration had also supported a new wind farm near Deming and that the executive of an ambitious alternative energy project called SunZia is in regular contact with him, even though regulation of that enterprise is largely federal.
SunZia, by the company’s description, would have extra-high voltage electric transmission lines and substations. They would transport primarily renewable energy from Arizona and New Mexico to customers and markets across the Southwest.
“People can throw a lot of stones at you, but we are moving forward on wind, solar and geothermal energy,” Bemis said. “My failing is I recognize reality. You can’t just flip a switch and say now we’re all about alternative energy.”
Politics mean confrontation
Bemis loves to brag about his staff at the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. He said he inherited a gold mine of human talent.
He talks about one manager’s career in baseball’s minor leagues and another’s unrelenting service to the state’s forests.
Perhaps his most enjoyable moment in his first year as cabinet secretary was in preserving a tradition at Rockhound State Park near Deming.
The park has an unusual policy of allowing visitors and collectors to take rocks home.
Then a debate began over whether it was wise to allow a parks assets to depart with the tourists.
Bemis remembers the matter as one of great public interest. In the end, his agency agreed to let visitors keep taking rocks. But administrative rules prohibit a quarry operator or gravel company from cleaning out the park.
In Bemis’ view, people spoke, government employees listened and democracy worked.
But, he said, a faction of the population is inclined to oppose him because it is predisposed to fighting with Gov. Martinez.
Bemis said his belief is that everybody in a Republican administration wants clean air, clean water and livable communities, even if critics say otherwise.
“That’s why there’s no point in me not being supportive of alternative energy,” he said.
But energy policy, he said, is like a supertanker. Nobody can turn it around immediately, and maybe they would not want to if they looked it closely.
Bemis said every oil rig in the state means 200 jobs when all the spinoffs are added together.
Nanasi of New Energy Economy said devotion to extraction industries is the governor’s way of paying back campaign contributors. An energy department looking to long-term stability should be emphasizing investments in alternative power, which will cost little to nothing when the technology is in place, she said.
Bemis says his mind is open, but the equation is more complex than his critics will allow.
“We are champions for their cause,” he said of organizations such as Nanasi’s.
To Continue Reading: Bemis takes helm at state department